Woody Allen has been directing movies for almost 50 years. Though the notoriously neurotic auteur will turn 80 this year (December 1, if you’re curious), he shows no signs of slowing down, and remains as prolific as ever, churning out an average of a film a year—sometimes more, rarely less—since the early 1970s. His 2015 offering, Irrational Man starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, is just hitting theaters, and while it’s a riff on Strangers on a Train and Dostoyevsky with some upside, it’s not one of the director’s strongest.
Irrational Man follows Abe Lucas (Phoenix), a notorious philosophy professor who takes a summer teaching position at a small Rhode Island university. A radical thinker and educator in the middle of a self-destructive existential crisis, he is the subject of all kinds of crazy rumors and gossip upon his arrival, though as well-known as he is, you get the distinct impression that this is something of a last chance. Once there, he meets Jill (Stone), a bright, eager co-ed who quickly becomes enamored with her new mentor.
Abe is a loner, an alcoholic toeing the line between the theoretical realm of his books and the real world. He used to want to save the planet and do good, but now he wallows in a bleak view of existence, which, of course, makes him irresistible to Jill, who is drawn to this sort of dysfunction like a moth to flame. She follows him around, saying things like, “He’s so damn fascinating.” The early going is nothing more than the story of this infatuation and Abe’s miserable state, dressed up with pretentions of philosophical depth that never resonate as anything more than empty platitudes.
Tedious dueling voiceover from Abe and Jill punctuate the movie and play like something in a first draft meant to be returned to and smoothed over later. They sound like stage directions from the script intended to give actors insight into their characters’ frame of mind, stating very obvious things about how they feel in a given moment, things that should be, that actually are, readily apparent from the performances. Haphazard and sporadic, these intrusions are ultimately redundant, unnecessary, and come across as if Allen doesn’t trust his actors to convey these emotions, or the audience to recognize them.
Both Stone and Phoenix deliver admirable presentations, and each is compelling to watch, despite the one-note characters they are handed. Phoenix mutters and shuffles his way through Abe’s “verbal masturbation” as he teeters on the verge of a breakdown, and Stone imbues Jill with an earnest charm of a young woman trying to figure out what she wants out of life. Does she want Abe or her boring ass, note-perfect boyfriend who is as entertaining and engaging as a raw potato?
The real star of the show, however, is Parker Posey, a dissatisfied science professor who develops a fascination with Abe similar to Jill’s. She’s sharp and acerbic and sad and hilarious all at the same time. Posey also apparently made an impression on Allen, since the two are already slated to reteam for his next film.
Irrational Man putters along like this, and it’s difficult to discern where exactly it’s headed and if there’s actually point. Until it makes a drastic tonal shift at the end of the first act. After a chance encounter, the film becomes a murder caper, complete with a jaunty piano refrain, as Abe finally chooses action over endless discussion, as he decides to bring his philosophical ideas and ideals into the realm of the concrete.
Here the film and the characters liven up. There’s finally a narrative thrust as Abe plots his deed, there’s tension as you wonder whether or not he’ll go through with his plan, and whether or not he’ll get caught. Because of his newfound action, Abe’s life is imbued with a meaning, with joy, with a zest for living that was missing. When the film gets to this point, it’s witty and intriguing, the pace carries along at a swift clip, and it feels like the Woody Allen of old.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t last, and the momentum fades. Once again, Irrational Man bogs down in a quagmire of redundancy as the story is rehashed as Jill tries to unravel a mystery and answer questions the audience already knows the answer to. It feels like, after a burst of energy, the movie just got tired.
There are moments where Woody Allen’s Irrational Man is compelling and energetic, where the characters find their groove, and the clumsy philosophy fits, but that only makes the rest of the movie, where that is definitely not the case, that much more frustrating to watch. Wanting to be about existential clash of theory and practice, gussied up as a darkly comic crime caper, it never comes together as a comedy, a thriller, or insightful discourse.